BRUSSELS -- EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele has outlined his vision about the future of EU-Belarus relations almost one year after the flawed elections in the country and the subsequent crackdown.
With the speech, he opened the door for greater cooperation with the country's civil society but offered no fresh aid.
Fuele noted that the amount of assistance available to Belarusian civil society now stood at a total of 19.3 million euros ($25.8 million) for the period 2011-13 and that a new EU toolkit to boost democracy in the EU neighborhood -- called the European Endowment for Democracy -- could offer further means of support once it had been given the green light by member states.
He also urged members of the Belarusian opposition to unite, and called on the country's "intelligentsia" to cooperate with civil society.
"After all, civil society, the independent media, and the political opposition cannot achieve this alone. They need the support of an intelligentsia to give their approach intellectual shape and direction. And they need to tap into the wider frustrations in the country, including amongst the 'nomenklatura,'" Fuele said.
"This was a key lesson of the transformation in Central Europe. While creating the external conditions for change is very important, autocracies always get eroded from within."
A Carrot, With Conditions
Fuele said the EU's offer of visa facilitation with Belarus, and even future visa liberalization, remained on the table but that the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka so far had not shown interest.
"I should note that we have been awaiting the response of the Belarusian authorities to our request to negotiate such agreements for many months. This alone would be a significant step, helping to facilitate greater interpersonal contact and an increased exchange of ideas between our citizens," Fuele said.
"But once such an agreement is achieved, there is no reason to say that we could not go even further, with a visa-free regime as our eventual goal."
The European Union has placed restrictive measures, such as visa bans and asset freezes, on more than 200 individuals with ties to Lukashenka's regime since the brutal crackdown on demonstrators after last December's flawed elections.
Fuele said that these measures would remain in place until significant changes are carried out.
"Further bilateral cooperation with the authorities is impossible until they meet a set of nonnegotiable political conditions -- namely progress on human rights and freedoms, and the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners," he said.
A 'Future Black Hole In Europe'
He also took a swipe at Lukashenka, saying that his iron-fisted rule was a clear sign that his regime was on its way out.
"Lukashenka may believe that, by repressing his own people, he is helping to cement his rule. He may believe that, by adopting new laws against his own citizens, he is acting to make our interaction with them more difficult," Fuele said.
"But I can tell you that when a regime begins to act in such a way, it is truly the beginning of the end. I know this from my own experiences in Central Europe."
No country can consider itself stable unless it is moving toward democracy, he added, saying it was "an illusion" that "cheap oil and gas" can take the place of reform.
"Without addressing this issue," Fuele said, "we are headed towards a future black hole in Europe."